|Pro-democracy marchers in Alexandria, Egypt, celebrate their victory on February 18, 2011. Credit: Mohamed Adel|
The stunning failure of the international commentariat to foresee the seismic shifts that are engulfing the Arab world is reason enough to be guarded about what commentators are now telling us about the causes and meaning of the uprisings.
Until events proved otherwise, many self-appointed experts confidently—sometimes arrogantly—explained that the global movement toward democracy had been spurned by the Arab world simply because liberty and equality were “not part of the Arab makeup.” So it must have come as quite a shock to them that the Arab people turned out to be not so different from the rest of the human race!
While the future course of events is not yet clear, there are certain tentative deductions that I believe we can risk making even now.
The first is the self-evident observation that there are opportunities and there are dangers, including, as witnessed in Libya and, potentially, Syria, the ominous prospect of prolonged civil wars in countries where the ruling powers decide to fight anti-government protesters to the bitter end. It is, perhaps, telling that the regimes that have always regarded themselves as “revolutionary” are among the last to come to terms with the new revolutionary mood.
Second, autocratic regimes plainly cannot be depended on to deliver “stability.” This is not altogether surprising, as there is usually no mechanism to change these brittle regimes that does not involve bringing down the whole system.
A third deduction is that nonviolent mass action is not the poor relative of an armed uprising but can often be more effective in achieving and sustaining change. Had the popular rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt been commandeered by men and women of the gun, they would probably have invited instant and overwhelming counterviolence by the respective regimes, which would have gladly seized the opportunity to crush the incipient protests.
Fourth, while the grievances of the Arab street may be similar, the contexts are different in each country. So it is not surprising if the revolutions—and the responses they provoke—take divergent paths.
Fifth, no one faction—religious, nationalist, or ideological—owns the revolution, except maybe the Arab youth, male and female, who have broken through the fear factor and are not prepared to swallow the old slogans, put up with a life of oppression, and suffer the alienation, hopelessness, and humiliations of their parents’ generation. However, this is not to say that there may not be an attempt by this or that political grouping to hijack one or another of the revolutions. Eternal vigilance on the part of the young revolutionaries, coupled with strong constitutional safeguards, will be vital to forestall such an eventuality, particularly during transitional phases.
Sixth, the new social media have revolutionized the way people communicate with each other and the potential for rapid mobilization. To the ruling old guard, putting down armed uprisings and attempted coups must have seemed like child’s play compared with the challenges presented by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Seventh, unlike the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989 that, in the main, aimed to transform their despotic governances into Western European–style liberal democracies, the Arab uprisings seem not to have very clear models other than generally wanting to change the political systems. Whether this is a strength or a weakness is yet to be seen.
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